4. Guidelines for anonymity

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As a guideline for most media outlets, anonymity is usually granted if there is no other way to get the information and what the source provides is integral to the story. However, there is no legislation or set policy that every news organization must abide by. Some media outlets try to remain as strict as possible in terms of granting anonymity, while others are less rigid.

On one end of the spectrum, some news organizations banned using anonymous sources outright. USA Today founder Al Neuharth once called anonymous sources “the root of all evil in journalism.” In an op-ed piece, he wrote that “in 1982, when we founded USA Today, we effectively banned all anonymous sources.” While competition, deadlines, and the chance at a “big scoop” has resulted in many media outlets relaxing their guidelines around sourcing, Neuharth says that “the only way to win the war against this evil is for journalists at all levels to ban all anonymous sources.” While the USA Today does now allow the use of unnamed sources, their guidelines are amongst the strictest, including “anonymous sources must only be used as a last resort” (emphasis mine) and that “anonymous accusations and speculation are not acceptable.”

After Newsweek retracted a 2005 report on a Quran being desecrated in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – a story which was written citing only anonymous sourcing – the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Richard Smith, changed its standards towards sourcing. In a letter to the readers, Smith wrote: “the cryptic phrase ‘sources said’ will never again be the sole attribution for a story in Newsweek.”

The Reuters handbook says that journalists should use named sources “wherever possible because they are responsible for the information they provide, even though we remain liable for accuracy, balance and legal dangers.” The guidelines suggest all journalists press sources to go on the record.

Other publications have much more lax restrictions. According to Henry Blodget, CEO and editor-in-chief of The Business Insider, his online business publication has the following policy on anonymous sources:

We will grant anonymity to any source at any time for any reason.

In a response to NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, Blodget wrote on Business Insider that anonymity is granted so readily because business news can be more valuable to readers if sources are able to speak on background so readily. What this requires is more faith that reporters are seeking out both sides and are diligent in their reporting and fact-checking.

All these varying stances on the use of anonymous sources and using quotes on background emphasizes that each organization has their own policy and viewpoint on what is best for journalism. The Canadian Association of Journalists ethics guidelines write that using unnamed sources can be permitted if “there is no other reasonable way to obtain the information.” In an effort to show transparency, the guideline goes on to say that anonymous sources are not allowed to take cheap shots at organizations.

In Ross’ particular case on the snow removal collusion and turf wars, many of her quotes were “cheap shots” at the industry as a whole instead of certain people or companies in particular. In effect, the quotes served the purpose of whistleblowing on the entire industry as opposed to attacking one person in particular.

Maisonneuve doesn’t have a formal policy on anonymity. As a general interest and literary magazine, published quarterly, the magazine includes a lot of personal journalism where the author will write about family or old friends, and “in cases like that, we feel we need to be a bit flexible with anonymity to allow it when it’s warranted,” Nelles says. In other stories when anonymity was asked for but did not seem necessary, the magazine would exclude the part with the confidential source or re-work the story.

Next: Reporting on corruption

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